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Fiction: They Mean Well

Robert Boswell
The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards
(GRAYWOLF, 2009)

Despite the promise of its title, insensitive bastards do not reign in Robert Boswell’s latest collection of stories. Morally ambiguous ruminators, perhaps. Tongue-tied romantics, fumbling sensualists. But even though some of the characters do disturbing or downright criminal things—a woman leaves her dying husband, a priest is aroused by paddling a teenage girl at her mother’s request, two drugged-out young men throw another drugged-out young man into a river and he drowns—they’re an introspective lot, tenderhearted deep down. Sensitivity is Boswell’s strength, and occasionally it’s his weakness, when a narrator’s thoughtful reflection gets a bit overly thoughtful. The strongest stories in this collection are the ones where Boswell’s gift for capturing the mysteriousness of love, desire, connection, and disaffection fit the particular characters and form he’s created for the story.

In “Smoke,” three high school boys on spring break “spend the whole time talking of girls when they could have gone to the beach to pursue them.” The boys attempt to communicate their first sexual encounters, while the narrator describes the formative experiences that have shaped their desires. The narrator’s revelation that one of these boys “would be me, thirty years ago, seventeen and posing with a cigarette, hoping to look untouched by anything in the wide world, including my own history,” highlights the moving contrast between the lush language that describes the boys’ feelings, and the words they’re actually able to say to each other.

“Supreme Beings” offers a godlike view into five troubled souls. There’s a young man who thinks Jesus is in town, and a priest who “would like to be held.” A fortuneteller who knows she can’t predict the future, but who “believe[s] herself to be sensitive to the needs of others and a help in their lives.” And a brother and sister abandoned by their father. When the girl was thirteen, her father seduced her, but he “had been lonely, and she did not hold it against him.” Boswell’s compassion for his characters and skill in plumbing the weird depths of human emotion are in full force here. The “supreme beings” of the story are people who are also supreme failures, unable to express their love, to know why they love, to keep from hurting those they love, but loving just the same.

The Heyday isn’t always this heavy. “In a Foreign Land” pokes fun at a New York “literary evening.” Our mocking guide to the event is a jaunty former obituary writer turned adman turned author of a book about “an inept and doomed outlaw.” The hostess at this Upper East Side party, he tells us, is “a talent-less writer with one tedious novel about menstruation (essentially) and a nonfiction account of her ex-husband’s vasectomy that she’d stretched like spandex to book length.” The dancing style of a guest, “a pretty woman, with nothing of the bovine in her and only a tiny bit of the zebra,” is described as “[a]n undulation with horns, perhaps, though that doesn’t capture the distinctively postmodern charm of it.” A month after the party, the narrator marries this woman, who happens to be his ex-wife’s best friend’s little sister.

As he wades through a thicket of entangled relationships, Boswell makes room for jokes. In “Almost Not Beautiful,” Lisa recalls the “boner of contention” between her and her sister, Amanda, who slept with Lisa’s ex-boyfriend, Timmy, a week after Lisa broke up with him and left for college. When Lisa sees Timmy years later, she asks him if he’s seeing anyone and he tells her “Kind of.” Lisa responds, “‘How can you ‘kind of’ see someone? You make love with your eyes shut?’” Boswell’s characters make love with their eyes open, and that’s why the final, title story, about an emotionally numb young man whose actions one summer lead to “a drowning, an overdose, pet fatalities, an automotive crash, and incarceration,” doesn’t quite ring true. After recounting his story to a therapist, the man asks, “Am I a threat to society? I await your decision.” But I can’t take his question seriously. I have Boswell’s voice in my head: no threat, but a comfort. Fully present to the world, sensate and wise.


Polly Rosenwaike


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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